March 15, 2009

Eleven Questions With Fuzzy Zoeller

Thirty years after he became just the third player to win a green jacket in his first Masters, Fuzzy Zoeller says the 2009 tournament at Augusta National will be his last. "It's not as much fun as it used to be," says Zoeller, 57, who'll continue to play a full schedule on the Champions Tour. But how will Augusta remember Fuzzy? As the carefree jokester who made the grind of professional golf seem like a $2 nassau with his buddies? Or as the man forever haunted by the remarks he made about Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters? Said Fuzzy's daughter Gretchen: "Sometimes it seems like 30 seconds trumped 30 years."

What made you decide that this will be your last Masters? It's time, for goodness' sake! They made the golf course so long that I just don't enjoy it. Arnold looked at me last year and said, "What are you doing?" And I said, "You know, you're right. What am I doing?" Thirty years is plenty. I'm not there for ego. It seems like the right time to turn it off.

Will you come back for the Champions Dinner? Absolutely. I'll come back for the Par-3 and to entertain people during the week. And if they ever ask me to be an honorary starter, I'd do that, too. That would be a great honor.

Hale Irwin, Raymond Floyd, Tom Kite—some of your longtime friends—say the incident at the '97 Masters, your remarks while Tiger was winning, has had a significant impact on you. I'd agree 100 percent, you bet. I get it every day. Someone will say, "Be careful." People I trusted went the other way on me. Did I say anything to hurt anyone? No. But I've paid my dues. We're like a big family out there. We joke and we jest. We're friends. But today with the press you can't say stuff you used to say, because you might be saying something that doesn't sound right.

Do you talk to Tiger when you return to Augusta? Tiger and I are very good friends. Tiger's just one of the guys, trust me. Look, we don't say everything correctly every time. People tried to make it a black-and-white issue. It wasn't. It was just a joke that went bad. I'll take it to my grave.

On tour you appear to be the same ol' Fuzzy, joking and having a great time. I'm still happy-go-lucky, still enjoy what I do. I like having fun with fans and making them smile. If I can get them to bring two or three friends the next day, I've had a good day.

You'll be attending your 30th Champions Dinner in April. Any great stories from sitting beside so many legends at those dinners? I've seen the great ones, and God bless Herman Keiser, who won in '46. We always hit it off, and as he got older his grand-son asked me to look after him the night of the dinner. One year he got away from me, and it was like I'd lost one of my own kids. I finally found him asleep in another room. What a nice man. Ben Hogan loaned him some money in the late '30s to get to the next week. Herman paid him back after he won the very next tournament. Hermy always said to me, "If you see Ben, tell him that Hermy said thank you." So every year I went to Colonial, and I'd tell Mr. Hogan, "Hermy says thank you." Mr. Hogan would look at me and say, "He's never forgotten."

You're one of only three (Horton Smith, Gene Sarazen) who have managed to win a green jacket as a Masters rookie. Why don't more first-timers win there? I don't really understand. I think the big mis-take they make is not taking a local caddie that week. I had Jeriah Beard, and that relieved a lot of pressure on me, knowing that he knew so much about the course. We had a great time. It was like a Seeing Eye dog leading a blind man.

You're close with John Daly. Have you spoken to him lately? God bless him. I've talked to him three or four times recently. He's burned so many bridges, I'm not sure there are enough construction workers around to help repair them all. I hope he understands he's going down a bad road. Until he gets help for his drinking problem, things will never change. In his eyes, he's fine. We talk to him all we can, but until he wakes up and says, "Whoa, I do have a prob-lem," he's not going to get better. Unfortunately, when all the doors shut behind you, you're going to eventually end up in a box.

How's Bobby Knight? We're still tight. We had dinner before Christmas. I think he's doing something he's enjoying as an analyst with ESPN. He just absolutely loves basketball. Plus he gets a chance to play golf all the time. And fish. He's trying to catch every trout there is.

Is he as fiery on the golf course as he was as a coach? He does get fiery. He wants to be scratch and just won't accept that he's a 14-handicapper. He just has no talent for the game! [Laughs.]

You're on the ballot for the World Golf Hall of Fame. Is making the Hall of Fame important to you? I don't worry about that. If I make it, obviously it would be wonderful. I was put on this earth to play golf, have fun and promote the game I love. If that gets me to the Hall of Fame, great, but I'm not living and dying by that.

Rich Lerner is a commentator and essayist for the Golf Channel.